One of the good things to come out of the trials and tribulations of Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly, in hot water over the accuracy of their memories of reporting from dangerous places, accused of polishing their credentials, of burnishing their badges of courage; one of the good things to come out of their difficulties is the learning that we have acquired about our memories, and the stories that we tell ourselves.
Scientists say that when we remember an event, we lay down a narrative which, the next time we remember, is what we recall instead of the original event. So each time we remember, we remember not the event but the story, and its editorial flourishes and polishes, until we end up with a pearl of a tale to tuck away and pull out whenever it’s needed, whether it still rings true or not.
I remember the first time I realized that, hearing my mother relate her end of a phone call that I’d overheard, sharpening and brightening her responses; she sounded good! Then she appealed to me to confirm her story, and I thought about the difference between what I had heard, with its hesitations and prevarications and backtracks, and the story she had told, and I said, “It wasn’t quite like that.” She was outraged, not because she had been caught in a lie, but because she knew that it happened the way that she told it, and she couldn’t understand why I was lying, throwing her under the bus. One of us, at least, had edited the memory of that phone conversation. I may even have edited this memory; it is, after all, a little too neat.
We all do it, burnishing the truth up to a brassy finish, spinning a yarn. Are we ashamed to be ourselves, to be human, made in the image of God?
Jesus said, “Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in glory.”
It is not a new phenomenon. Even saintly Paul got to telling the story of Abraham in a seriously revisionist fashion.
Paul says that Abraham didn’t weaken in faith nor waver when he considered his own body nor the barrenness of Sarah’s womb, which is simply not the case. Abraham might have believed that God could work with his old bones, but he wasn’t so sure about hers, which is how Ismael came to be born to Sarah’s slave woman, Hagar, because they did not trust God with Sarah’s old womb. And then there’s the matching pair of incidents in which Abraham gave up Sarah, pretending she was his sister, because he was afraid of the foreign king. Of course he got her back, both times, but even so. The only time Abraham truly showed no doubt, he nearly killed his son. What kind of faith was that?
Abraham was our father in faith and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, but to say that his faith never wavered is polishing the truth a tad, spinning the story for Paul’s own purposes. We all do it.
Peter even tried it with Jesus. Peter did not want the story told as Jesus was telling it; he pulled Jesus aside and rebuked him, told him off, told him there was a better story to tell, a better way to tell it. And Jesus said, “Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in glory.”
Was Paul ashamed that even the most unassailable role model for faith was a flawed and fragile old man, fully human?
Was Peter ashamed of the gospel that Jesus was proclaiming: that the kingdom of God had drawn near, but that didn’t mean an end to Roman rule, corruption, crucifixion; that there would still be the cross to consider?
Are we ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified? Does the sight of the cross make us waver? Are we ashamed of the gospel?
Can you imagine turning your face and your feet toward Jerusalem, knowing what was coming, telling your closest friends, confessing your deepest fears, and then one says, “Ach, don’t worry about it! It’s not going to be so bad! God won’t give you more than you can handle!”
Actually, that’s a spin on a verse in 1 Corinthians: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to all. God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
The promise that God is faithful is true, but it is not a promise that no misfortune will ever befall, that no suffering will overwhelm our spirits, still less that God carefully measures out suffering to each of us just to the point of breaking. That’s a spin on the gospel I could do without. The gospel does entreat us not to despair; but it also acknowledges that we all bear that temptation; that it is common to all; and Jesus knew it. He was disappointed, angry, maybe even ashamed when his good friend Peter tried to wash it all out with denial and spin. Peter, of course, did a good line in denial.
Devoid of spin, the gospel is not a promise that we will all live happily ever after. The flood did not wash the earth clean of all suffering and sin, and the cross; the cross may have put a stake through the heart of evil, but its death throes are not yet done. And a gospel that denies the cross, the death of God, that skips straight to glory; that is a gospel that will ring untrue when it is tested beyond what it can bear.
The gospel of the cross is that God has, in the person of Jesus, taken our suffering into God’s self, and redeemed it, transformed it, remade it into resurrection. The gospel of the cross is that God has not forsaken us, even at the time of deepest crisis; even at the pinnacle of pain; God is there with us, and will raise us up, has raised us up with his resurrection. The gospel is not a word that denies or dismisses our suffering, but one that redeems it.
In We Preach Christ Crucified, Kenneth Leech says,
“To remember Christ in his dying is to become his members, his limbs and organs, to be his body crucified and risen.”
When we, like Peter, want to forget about the crucifixion, pretend nothing bad ever happens, and skip straight to glory, we miss out much more than the hill of Calvary. We miss out on the whole Incarnation, on God becoming human enough to die with us, for us. When we deny the cross, we miss out on the comfort of a God who is close to us, who has suffered for us, who stays with us. We miss out on the closeness of a God who can understand and empathize with our darkest hours. We miss out on the re-membering, the putting back together of a life which ends not in death, but in resurrection. We miss becoming Christ’s body, broken and resurrected, for the sake of the world.
Is it enough? Are we ashamed of such a gospel?
Peter and Paul each had their moments of doubt, as did Abraham, and yet God was faithful to them. Peter’s denial, ashamed to acknowledge Jesus in the courtyard, is countered by Jesus’ kiss of peace. There is nothing to fear from confessing that we have our moments, too. And in them, in those moments of doubt and despair, what polish do we apply to our stories, our faith, afraid to tell the unvarnished truth to ourselves and to one another? Fortunately, God has heard it all before, and God bears with us graciously.
Because the simple, unspun truth of the gospel is this: the kingdom of God is drawn near. God is as close to us as our own bodies, and even when our bodies fail us, God won’t. God will not let us down, will not let us go, in our hour of need; and we will need that assurance. God will stand by us, stand with us, and God will raise us up, even if it takes until the last day. And if it does, then there is no shame in that.
Kenneth Leech, We Preach Christ Crucified (tenth anniversary edn) (Church Publishing, 2005), 6